“Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
That’s the question Sam Gamgee asks an exhausted, starving, and despondent Frodo Baggins as they struggle to march through Mordor. Frodo has lost hope that he’ll reach the end of his journey. But rather than saying, “Muster up your strength! We have essential, important work to do,” Sam simply asks: “Do you remember the Shire?”
Do you remember the butter and bread, the flowers in the orchards, the songs and the rain, the laughter around tall pints of brown ale? While the important mission in the world is destroying the Ring—defeating Lord Sauron and all evil—Sam reflects on strawberries and cream.
Why? Because their way of life in the Shire was worth saving. Oh, you can live without beer and bread and strawberries. Sam and Frodo made it through Mordor without them. Those things are far from essential.
Those nonessential things are worth preserving, worth protecting, worth marching into Mordor for. Sam finds courage because of the frivolous joys of the Shire, not despite them. They are not essential, but they are significant.
We are in Mordor now. In an attempt to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, our country has shut down all “nonessential” work unless it can be done from home. More than 22 million people have lost their jobs in the last month. Unemployment may eventually exceed 20 percent. Many who still have jobs are barely working. Businesses have ground to a halt. Production will probably fall by more than 35 percent during lockdown.
One of the sharpest ways we feel this loss isn’t in the contents of our Amazon cart, but in the way we spend our days. There’s nothing like an emergency to make you realize the work you do isn’t vital.
Essential vs. Non-Essential
Of course, we know the labels of “essential” and “nonessential” aren’t perfect. For example, my friend’s “nonessential” prostate surgery has been postponed, while I am still teaching “essential” college classes online. We are, at best, maintaining the jobs that are essential now in this moment. Indeed, we can make it through this because of past work—cars assembled, clothing sewn, Zoom developed—that isn’t essential right now.
Awaiting us in Christ is the glorious fulfillment of our insignificant contributions.
But if you aren’t a health-care professional working directly with COVID-19 patients, you’re probably feeling like I am. People are dying, there is a war at hand, some are called on to fight the battle—and we aren’t. Our work—taking wedding photos or curating museums or teaching economics classes—felt valuable until the coronavirus pointed out that medical professionals and epidemiologists are the ones who save lives.
This isn’t the first time people have questioned the necessity of their work. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who both studied literature and the history and structure of languages, doubted the value of such luxurious work when World War II broke out. They had served in World War I, so they knew what meaningful work was in that moment—and philology and fantasy novels don’t fight Nazis. Lewis wrote “Learning in Wartime” to encourage others; Tolkien wrote “Leaf by Niggle” to encourage himself.
Tolkien worried that his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy would never be finished—and what would be the point anyway? He projected those fears onto a fictional artist named Niggle, who, as his name suggests, obsessed over small details and didn’t get much done. Niggle’s life project was to paint a tree. He had a glorious vision for it, but all he ever managed to paint was a single leaf.
Because of the resurrection, our labor is not in vain.
Niggle was busy, well, niggling, but also caring for his elderly neighbors instead of painting. Niggle catches a cold and dies, and “on a train” on his way to heaven he sees it out the window—his tree. Oh, it’s not exactly what he’d envisioned, but it’s clearly his, built out of his leaf, fulfilled and complete. Niggle recognizes that this fulfillment of his failed life work, the completion of the project to which he had contributed but a single leaf, was a gift.
Tolkien’s story beautifully depicts Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15. Because of the resurrection, we do not labor in vain. Because what is sown perishable will be raised imperishable, because death is defeated, because we will be raised with physical bodies that jump and laugh and dance and sing, our work is not vanity. It will endure.
Like our bodies, our work is now but a kernel of what it will be. Most of us will, at best, eke out a single leaf. But awaiting us in Christ is the glorious fulfillment of our insignificant contributions. You don’t need to know what “tree” you are working on. Few of us have any idea which leaf we are contributing. We don’t have to. Because our Father is the gardener, he tends to the vines.
Your labor, no matter how seemingly insignificant and nonessential, is not in vain. It’s essential.
Hidden Gift in the Economic Downturn
Our work may be dignified by God, but it’s still twisted by the fall. Even now, much of our economy’s growth is stimulated by a recognition that our world isn’t as it ought to be. Research and development are driven by the belief that something ought to exist which doesn’t yet—whether that be a cure for coronavirus, smartphones, or an online platform for buying books and clothes and groceries. Innovation longs for a different world.
Even among Christians, sin mingles virtuous aspirations with vile desires. The noblest enterprises are sometimes energized by greed and pride. And our ability to make ourselves more and more comfortable can deaden our desire for heaven—if Amazon and Uber Eats can fulfill our desires, what do we need to look forward to?
Though we can work to redeem the economy, it cannot redeem us.
That is the hidden gift of an economic downturn, of the panic and pain in a pandemic. Alexa can’t answer all of our questions. Google can’t protect us. Target can’t even reliably supply our hand sanitizer, bread, or toilet paper. Like a fast, this economic downturn can teach us that we are dependent, physical creatures, quickly brought to our knees in weakness. The best our economy has to offer—a stocked pantry, a long-lasting cell phone battery, the ability to work from home—isn’t enough to save us.
Though we can work to redeem the economy, it cannot redeem us.
But God can—and does. And sometimes he uses the supposedly nonessential to remind us.
Strawberries and Sea Creatures
When our two sons were almost 2 and 4, my wife and I couldn’t imagine how any parents ever manage with more. Our boys are—well, if children are arrows in a quiver, our boys are bazookas crossed with thunderbolts and F-14s. As much as we love and delight in our sons, we were sure a third child would destroy us.
On a visit to the American Museum of Natural History one day, my wife noted the deep-sea creatures that live in darkness miles below the water’s surface. We humans never see them, and we barely know anything about them—God must have made them just for himself out of sheer delight. In wonder at the numerous creatures God made for seemingly no other purpose than his own pleasure, my wife was struck by this thought: And of all that God created, people are his treasured possession.
Recently, as my daughter toddled around our backyard laughing in the sun, I was overwhelmed anew by the knowledge that life is beautiful. A baby’s giggles, like strawberries and cream and orchards blooming in the Shire, are worth living and dying for.
Significant and good, they inspire us to live for what is most important, most essential. I find strength and courage to sacrifice for my children, to attempt the hard work of laying down my life for my wife, and to labor for peace and prosperity in our world because the splendor of God’s beauty breaks through in my children’s playful smiles.
Even after the pandemic passes and our economy shifts back into gear, we’ll still be in Mordor. May we always ache for something more. And while we wait, may we find in the laughter of children, the beauty of sea creatures, and the taste of strawberries not only a promise of what is to come, but also the motivation to keep going.
Your work may be nonessential. But it is absolutely significant.